At this stage in the climate crisis, and after the election we just had, you should have hopefully heard of Extinction Rebellion (XR). A movement that began in London and whose actions resulted in the British Parliament declaring a climate emergency, they have brought their ideas to Australia, among other nations around the world. Each group is unique, with their own targets and strategies in mind. Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to speak with Adam, who helps with public outreach for XR in Perth. So, who are they, and what are they all about?
The first thing to note is that there is no established hierarchy as we know of in other organisations. Groups can spring up anywhere, with resources and guidelines provided online for anyone interested in starting their own. These guidelines were introduced by Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook, who are two of the many individuals who saw something wrong with the political system, and decided to do something about it.
“They decided that what they needed to do was just try something different. They came up with this concept of an Extinction Rebellion, and that was to kind of force the topic onto the table and for the media and politicians to not be able to keep pushing it away.”
When it comes to commitments, XR is flexible and allows its members to decide what action they’re going to volunteer themselves for. “Then they’re given a little bit of guidance, and a little bit of a moment, within which they can act and then they all come together as one, to rise up and do something quite extraordinary, which is what happened in London.”
On the 15th of March, the Extinction Rebellion launched and saw its most effective action in London. Stopping traffic for nearly six days in a row in five different areas forced the attention of the media both within the UK and around the world. Over 1,000 people were arrested, but they had the support of tens of thousands of people, said Adam.
“It was quite controversial, the authorities didn’t like it. Because of the things that had happened in the past few years in London with marches and protests and policing, the police backed off a little bit, and let it happen.”
The kind of future rebels want
XR is demanding that, firstly, politicians stop lying and hiding the truth about the scale of the crisis being faced. Secondly, they demand a commitment to very strong action to deal with the ecological and climate crisis including reducing greenhouse gases to net zero by 2025 and prevent the extinction of flora and fauna worldwide. Finally, they ask for the creation of a citizen’s assembly which takes advice from experts to come up with a plan to enact the transition to “a world in which we’re not destroying ourselves and our environment.”
“It’s an ongoing process,” said Adam. “The latest IPCC report gives us 12 years at the outside, to do something effective and long-lasting, to make a difference, and so we start now, we start today, we start last month.”
It’s undeniable that XR has made incredible progress for a group which started its activism so recently. Being spurred on by other activist and lobbying groups, and standing on the shoulders of giants as it were, enabled XR’s success, says Adam.
“I don’t want to at all minimise all of the great work that’s been done by the environmental movements over the many decades, and they’ve all had their moment. Like Greenpeace, when they were doing direct action in the oceans preventing whaling, they had their moment and got lots of support for that. [They] did manage to prevent commercial whaling for many years.” Adam added that the scale required to survive the climate crisis had to be stepped up to even more dramatic action.
“I feel it’s a natural consequence of having to try and scale up and the activist movement, realising that it’s more than just single-issues or single countries. It has to be a combined effort.”
On the problem of money
Adam said that one of the main issues with political change was the amount of money made and used by those who want to prevent it.
“We need to have a people-powered movement because we could never raise enough money to take on those people and corporations who have billions of dollars to spend if they need to, to make sure that they continue to do what they’re doing.”
With regards to the election outcome, and from the perspective of the Rebellion, Adam said it didn’t matter who won. The problem was really the structure of electoral politics being vulnerable to powerful lobbying groups who work against the public interest. The XR had grown tired of waiting for the internal structural change needed for meaningful climate action.
“I think, given what’s happened recently given a lot of elections around the world, you do see this resurgence of people who are representing the interests of the status quo. They are getting immense amounts of support both directly through financial campaign contributions but also indirectly through influencing social media.”
Adam references the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal, and influential billionaires like Robert Mercer and Rupert Murdoch, who use the media as a tool for targeted campaigns and swaying opinions, and to “spread stories that are not true”. This ability for the mainstream and social media to influence electoral politics so pervasively was part of the problem, said Adam.
Whose voices does the Rebellion hear?
When I asked Adam to speak to XR’s plans for Australia, he said that this is being discussed by the Rebellion. The British group of XR write in their handbook on specific targets for their country, and Australian groups are considering what their own demands will look like. One of the most crucial issues is colonisation, how to decolonise the debate and whether any demands need to be made on the subject.
“What I want to emphasise, and what I noticed in London, while I was there, was that the Rebellion, because of its direct action, and because of its willingness of loads of people to put themselves at risk of arrest, it’s actually quite a privileged, middle-class movement.”
He said that, in its direct action phase, the movement actively puts privileged people “in the firing line”.
“I don’t think, in Australia, that we should ever use any marginalised or oppressed culture groups or voices to put themselves in the firing line. They’re in the firing line already.”
In an open letter to the Extinction Rebellion, written by the group Wretched of the Earth and published with Red Pepper, a call is made to be inclusive of marginalised groups for whom arrest, police profiling, and oppression are everyday circumstances, specifically “those of us who are Indigenous, working class, black, brown, queer, trans or disabled, [for whom] the experience of structural violence became part of our birthright”. The letter goes on to say:
In order to envision a future in which we will all be liberated from the root causes of the climate crisis—capitalism, extractivism, racism, sexism, classism, ableism and other systems of oppression—the climate movement must reflect the complex realities of everyone’s lives in their narrative.
Adam and other Rebels know the importance of intersectionality and a complex understanding of environmentalism to marginalised and oppressed groups and minorities.
“The Rebellion in Australia wants to empower and to listen to and support all those voices that are moving towards a decolonised society. At the same time, I think the Rebellion is the Rebellion, and when the Rebellion is over and the battle has been won and we’ve started to initiate a just transition to a more stable and more sustainable society, then we allow those voices to guide us from then on.”
He added that this step was crucial in the third demand of the XR—the citizens’ assembly—that marginalised voices were included and empowered. It is part of the plan for XR to recognise the damage that colonisation has caused to people and the planet, especially in Australia.
Speaking to the work of the group in London, Adam said that it wasn’t over yet. Despite the British government passing the non-binding motion declaring a climate emergency. Next steps for the group in England include targeting the media and advertising industry, the fashion industry, and continuing the pressure the government to commit to meaningful, long-term action.
Fear, hope and reassurance
At the end of our chat, I asked Adam to speak to the rise of eco-fascism in Australia—a sect of fascism which uses sustainability and ecological conservation as a cover for anti-refugee and anti-immigration policies, targeted mainly at people of colour. Several parties that could be named eco-fascist made it to the ballot, including the misleadingly-named Sustainable Australia party, and the confusingly-named Climate Action! Immigration Action! Accountable Politicians! party.
“There are extreme environmental groups as there are extreme-any-kinds-of-groups,” Adam said. “The Extinction Rebellion does want to remain a peaceful and nonviolent movement.”
“Most of the most effective social change movements happen from a position of nonviolence rather than violence, which tends to turn people off rather than be effective for the cause.”
He added that a technique of “divide and conquer” was becoming easier for what we could broadly name the right, in the digital age. This political alignment uses politics of fear to persuade people into the belief of false threats. “The right is really getting very sophisticated at telling stories which push those buttons.
“I think, in terms of making a just and equitable transition to a sustainable society, we have to do the reverse. We have to give people hope, we have to reassure them, that they are not going to end up hungry and starving, that they can continue to feed their children—when I say hungry and starving I mean becoming poor, becoming destitute, losing their jobs, all of that stuff.”
Adam made clear that the essential difference is that the XR movement had to provide hope to contrast fear. “If we can get enough people to be hopeful, and not be afraid, then we can get a movement going and build on that.”
If you would like to learn more about the Extinction Rebellion, you can visit their website at rebellion.earth, with the Australian version available at ausrebellion.earth. You can find them on Facebook at Extinction Rebellion Western Australia.